Political Gabfest

Despite GOP Dirty Tricks, Democrats Can Still Carve a Path to Victory

Republicans pursue tactics to distract and disenfranchise. But Democrats can still capture change, even without taking the Senate.

U.S. Capitol with protesters in front.
Protesters demonstrate and are arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building on Oct. 6.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

The 2018 midterm elections are the most important elections of our lifetimes … at least since the previous election. It’s a topic discussed in this week’s Political Gabfest podcast, which is hosted by Emily Bazelon, David Plotz, and John Dickerson. Special guest David Axelrod, former chief strategist for Barack Obama, dropped by to discuss the intersections of politics and violence and also Trump’s attempts to steer the election coverage leading up to the midterms.

Below you’ll find a partial transcript of their conversation. For the full discussion, listen to Political Gabfest via the audio player below, or get the show via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

David Plotz: The midterm elections are Tuesday. This election has felt like it’s been building up for, really, for two years practically—since the moment Donald Trump was elected, it feels like Democrats have been waiting for this moment. David, how do you feel?

David Axelrod: I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to friends on both sides, and everybody seems to agree on a few things. One is that it’s highly likely that Democrats will take the House but probably not by that many seats. Nobody’s sure of anything, by the way. But I think the general sense is that Democrats will win the House, and that Republicans will win the Senate, and they may expand their majority there. And it could be anywhere from one to three additional seats.

I think the other storyline is going to be governorships, though. I think Democrats are going to win a bunch of governorships. And they’re gonna do very well in the very places where Donald Trump took the presidency, in states like Michigan, perhaps Ohio and Wisconsin, maybe Florida. And, in all those states, I think Democratic senators are going to be re-elected. So I expect a mixed result with the president claiming victory, whatever happens.

Plotz: Emily, there’s been this sensation of dirty tricks. There was an attempt to smear Robert Mueller, just moments before the election, as a sexual harasser, which was exposed as being pure trickster-ism, pure criminal activity of the people trying to smear him.

But then, also you had the president—and I think all presidents attempt to gain an advantage for their party during a midterm or a presidential election campaign, so it’s no surprise that President Trump is trying to do that—but the [president’s] mechanisms, with the caravan, the sending troops to the border, the birthright citizenship nonsense, seem particularly blatant this time around.

Emily Bazelon: Yeah. And also, we, the media, keep falling for [the tricks] over and over again. And I don’t know what to do about that. I feel like I keep reading these smart analyses of the problem, but we keep covering it because it’s sensational and incendiary. And it’s sticking to us like these bits of, I don’t know, detritus or tar, something. And we keep falling into the trap.

Even as I’m reading these helpful, smart op-ed pieces explaining why birthright citizenship is a constitutional right by people like George Conway, a lawyer married to Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s closest advisers, I feel like the whole thing is an exercise in futility because we’re giving attention to the topic that the president wants us to be talking about in the week before the election. Instead of pre-existing conditions of sick people, and what the Republican plan would really do to expose people to a lot of risk who have health problems.

It’s so hard to figure out how to break this pattern on television, online, and here on the Gabfest. And that problem is distracting me from paying attention to the elections. Which, I don’t know, I also feel like the last few days before the election is always so confusing. It’s just really hard to know exactly what’s going on.

Axelrod: But isn’t that the genius of—I mean, it’s a diabolical genius, of Donald Trump. He understands the modern media environment better than anybody. He came out of it. He thinks of life in terms of ratings. He’s probably been thinking about that question for some time: What grenades can I launch, in the last week [before the election], to really torque this thing up? So that is his genius. The question is whether you cover it as a tactic, or you cover it as a serious issue. I think it should be covered as a tactic. I think it should be made clear—

Bazelon: And also given less airtime, right?

Axelrod: —just like his phantom tax cut, that he said was coming before the election, even though Congress was out of session.

Bazelon: I’m agreeing with you but also arguing that it’s a matter of volume, right? That yes, it’s a tactic. And also, it shouldn’t crowd out other substantive issues, the way it is doing.

John Dickerson: We covered it as a tactic [on CBS]. Everything David says I think is right. It could have been embedded in stories which were also running that day, about 5,000 troops being sent to the border. Now, that you can’t ignore. The military is being mobilized in the move to the border. That’s a piece of news.

Axelrod: Or so we’re told.

Dickerson: Well, but I mean, when the secretary of defense says—

Axelrod: Well, now it’s 15,000, John. And the question is, where will it be next Wednesday? It may go the way of the phantom tax cut.

Bazelon: And it’s another tactic.

Dickerson: Stipulating that it’s a tactic—I’m trying to draw a distinction between the president winging off something in conversation, and something that he’s got the Defense Department, at least at some level, mobilizing to do. And as a way of packaging it so that people can understand the distinctions, here.

The question I have for you, David, is, in conversations I’ve been having recently, with Republicans, some have marveled at the discipline from Democrats, at continuing to talk about pre-existing conditions all through the last several months, and not taking the bait on some of these issues, not getting into a war that takes place on turf that the president wants it to take place on. What’s your take on the apparent discipline, among Democrats, on the health care issue?

Axelrod: No, I think that is absolutely true. I just watched the cascade of ads, sitting in Chicago. We’ve got some hot congressional races out there. And the Democratic ads are almost all focused on that, and I think it’s been smart. You hear a lot of people that [say,] Democrats love to wring their hands and talk about how the Democratic Party has no message, and so on. And the truth is, there’s rarely a national message when you don’t have the White House.

But there is this insight that this issue has touched a chord in people, and the proof of it isn’t just that Democrats have been disciplined—now Republicans all over the country are forced to run ads saying, Oh, no. We want to protect people with pre-existing conditions. And it tells you how powerful that issue is.

Plotz: On the right, this issue of immigration, which to me, is mostly a mirage issue—immigration is not a crisis, in my mind—but, clearly, Republicans are galvanized about it. Should Democrats have found a way to engage on that issue? It feels like they’ve totally ceded the territory to Republicans.

Axelrod: I’ve had Democratic strategists talk to me about that and proposed that there should be a sane alternative to what to do about the caravan, and so on. I think that there is some merit to that. There’s also merit to keep on doing what appears to be working for you. I think where the caravan thing is going to work for Trump, is in places where he might have gotten Republicans to flow his way on in these red states. He may profit in these Senate races.

I will say this: Every single person I’ve spoken to, Republican and Democrat, who are involved in these races said something changed after the events of last week—whatever momentum the Republicans had was halted. And the president has lamented about that, more than he has about particularly the bomber. One Republican, a top Republican, said to me, We’re sort of back to where we were before the Kavanaugh hearings. Except in those red states, where this, I think, this immigration issue has galvanized the president’s base.

Plotz: John, does the Senate seem generationally doomed for Democrats? Is the institution completely lost? Or is it just the circumstance, that is that they just happen to be defending a lot of seats, and in years to come, they’ll recover? There is this issue of the small states, the population distribution makes the Senate a much harder get. Do you feel like the Democrats are completely hosed on it?

Dickerson: I don’t think so, just because I have that general feeling, which I know I’ve expressed before—I’ve always felt like, and we’ve seen this a few times, people say, Oh, the Democratic Party is dead. Suddenly after John Kerry lost [people said,] The Democratic Party’s got nothing, and then Barack Obama comes along. Then it turns into, The Republican Party is over. And then they retake the House. So I think this is a bad map for Democrats—

Axelrod: Worst in 100 years.

Dickerson: Yeah. I think one thing to keep in mind is incumbents usually get re-elected. This is a Democratic year. Presidents usually … lose Senate seats. So all the momentum is going in the Democrats’ direction. And yet, as David said, the Republicans might even pick up seats, which tells you something about how things have changed in the diehard partisanship that was not always a part of American elections. I was going back and looking at ’86 and ’82, and there are these great long articles about dealignment and the idea that, basically, politics wasn’t partisan anymore. There was this free-floating electorate that would kind of pick and choose candidates—

Bazelon: Hmm, what a fantasy.

Dickerson: —regardless of their parties. But I guess I feel like I don’t know the answer to your question, David. I feel like the next election, in 2020, is a better map for Democrats. And also, remember how people were saying, Oh, the Midwest is dangerous territory for Democrats. As David pointed out, all the Senate races in the Midwest are pretty much looking fine for Democrats, in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and Wisconsin … I guess the point is a lot of things that people think are the case actually change pretty quickly.

Axelrod: I think one of the reasons Mitch McConnell feels a sense of urgency about trying to get as many seats as possible is that he looks forward to 2020, and the map isn’t very good for Republicans—he wants to bankroll as many seats as he can here. These states tend to go tribal and follow their presidential picks in Senate races. The fact that six or seven Democrats might survive, I’d feel pretty good about that. I don’t think they necessarily will, but I think that’s probably a pretty good batting average, given the proclivities of the country right now.

Plotz: Emily, what’s your sense about whether the ballot access fights are going to energize or depress voting, especially among Democrats?

Bazelon: You can’t overstate the significance of kicking people off the registration rolls. Because when you do that, then they just literally can’t vote. And there are states like Georgia, where hundreds of thousands of people have had their registrations rejected or been taken off the rolls. Ohio is another state with tens of thousands of people [purged from the rolls]. So that has a real impact. I do think that telling people that the franchise is threatened, in some way, can make it seem more valuable to them.

But everything we know about messaging and voting suggests that you have to say, Hey, here’s this good candidate who is interested in this, that connects to you, and Voting is something that everybody does, that you wanna be a part of. [It’s not about] the sort of hectoring or scolding people into making them feel like they have to perform this duty. So that makes me think that the fears about losing [the right to] vote are not going to be super powerful for people who aren’t already engaged.

I’m just constantly struck, going about life, by how many people are not engaged. I think one of the reasons, John, that you’re right, that maps change, and party alignments change, is that people are persuadable, in part because they’re not paying very much attention. Maybe at a different point in the nation’s history, or maybe we’ll see more turnout now, but the number of people who just don’t really know a whole lot about this, and don’t really care, remains huge. I mean, I run into those people lots and lots [where I live] in Connecticut.

Axelrod: On the positive side—this has been kind of a beat down on Donald Trump, and I want to give him credit. I think he’s actually responsible for what is likely to be the biggest turnout in a midterm since the mid-’60s. For the first time in my lifetime Democrats are actually outspending Republicans in most of these districts because of small donations that have come through. I expect that there’s going to be a very, very big vote next Tuesday.

Dickerson: When people ask you why they should vote, what do you tell them?

Axelrod: Well, I don’t have to work very hard to say we’ve had examples in the last 10 years of how politics matter. And I can point to things that were done over the Obama administration that have had a palpable impact on people’s lives. The Affordable Care Act, pulling the country out of a potentially catastrophic economic disaster, and so on. And then we’ve seen the impact that this president has had. Anybody who says elections don’t matter, at this point, simply isn’t paying attention. And this is the fundamental way in which we grab the wheel of history and turn it in the direction we think is right.